Point of View
By William Goldberg, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.
I left my cult three years ago although I had been considering leaving for quite a while. Now that I’m out, although I know I made the right decision about leaving, there are many times that I’ve had doubts about my ability to make other decisions. I don’t feel that I can trust myself, and I’m always asking others what I should do. I would like to be able to trust myself without the constant doubts.
You don’t mention whether you were recruited into your cult or were born into it, so I’m going to respond for both circumstances. If you were recruited into your cult, and feel that by joining you made a terrible decision, try to remind yourself of the many times that you used your judgment and you were right to do so. You made a costly mistake when you became a member of the cult, but that was an unusual circumstance with a person or group of people who took unfair advantage of you and who may have manipulated you. You made the best decision that you could have made with the information that was available to you at that time. If you knew then what you know now, you, undoubtedly, would have chosen a different path.
Remember, also, that you exercised your judgment when you decided to leave the cult. If you’re going to criticize yourself for having joined in the first place, you have to acknowledge that you chose to leave despite the pressures and fears associated with that act. Deciding to leave the cult was undoubtedly more difficult for you than deciding to join. Give yourself credit for that courageous decision.
If you were born and raised in the cult, you may be facing a different circumstance. Perhaps you were denied the opportunity to make important choices while you were in the cult; and, therefore, you may not feel comfortable in trusting yourself when you don’t have guidance. Remember, though, that while you were in the cult, you probably were making some (secret?) decisions that went against the doctrine.
Now you’re acclimating yourself to a new culture with different rules. It may take some time for you to feel completely comfortable with the new possibilities and new demands that freedom brings.
When we’re unsure of ourselves, we tend to focus on our deficits and take our strengths for granted. Of course, this tendency was reinforced by your cult. In the cult, you may have been taught that you can’t trust yourself, as a means of subjugating you to the cult and the cult leader. You may have been taught that you should always defer to another person or to a theoretical concept rather than to trust yourself or act in your own best interests. You probably now recognize the distortions that you were induced to accept, but it may take time for your gut reactions to catch up with that recognition. Again, now, it may be helpful to make a realistic, honest appraisal of yourself and your abilities. You will probably find that you have more reason to trust yourself and your instincts than you initially thought.
Of course, it can also be a good idea to ask for opinions from people whom you trust. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for an opinion, and receiving understanding about your insecurities may help you to feel less afraid. If, however, you find yourself frequently immobilized and unable to make day-to-day decisions, or if you find that you are constantly putting off important decisions for too long a period of time, you may want to consider seeking professional help so that you can work to free yourself from the restraints that the cult imposed upon you.
Whether you seek the help of a professional or a friend, remember that the conversation about conflicts in your life should be one of mutual respect that expands the range of possibilities for you. If you are speaking with someone who continually tells you what to do, or who claims to have all the answers for you, it’s probably better for you to look elsewhere for support.
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William Goldberg, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., a therapist in private practice, has co-led a support group for ex-cult members with his wife, Lorna, for over 30 years. He retired in 2008 from his position as Program Supervisor for Rehabilitative Services for the Rockland County (NY) Department of Mental Health. He is presently an Adjunct Instructor in the Social Work Department of Dominican College.